Anglo Irish War, The (January 1919-July 1921)

Campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British army and *RIC by the *Irish Republican Army (IRA), also known as the War of Independence.

On 21 January, 1919, 27 (out of the 73), Sein Féin MPs who were not in jail or on the run formed an Irish parliament, *Dáil Éireann, and declared the formation of an independent Irish Republic. On the same day, the Third Tipperary Brigade of the *Volunteers, ambushed and killed two policemen escorting explosives to a quarry at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. This incident is generally seen as the start of the War of Independence.

The conflict can be divided into three distinct phases: the I.R.A. campaign against attacks on the R.I.C; the struggle between the I.R.A. and the Auxiliaries / Black and Tans; the use of I.R.A. Flying Columns and the search for a peaceful solution.

The Volunteers (who in August 1919 renamed themselves the *Irish Republican Army) did not organize as a regular army but instead adopted guerilla tactics, striking quickly and fading back into the countryside. While in theory command lay with *Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defense, the nature of guerilla warfare made it necessary for local commanders to maintain complete control while the Dáil was forced to endorse and take full responsibility for their actions.

Following the Soloheadbeg ambush, *Cathal Brugha issued an order authorizing the killing of soldiers and policemen. At this time, the RIC numbered approximately 10,000 and their and RIC barracks were targeted by the IRA as a source of weapons. This action was followed by a motion in the Dáil by *de Valera, which proposed that RIC members be ostracized. Recruitment fell drastically, as policemen became social outcasts and the victims of intimidation. Many resigned and in the countryside, barracks became deserted as RIC officers were transferred to larger urban centers. By the summer of 1919, over fifty policemen had been killed and during Easter 1920, the IRA, in a gesture of defiance, burned many of the abandoned barracks throughout the country.

In June 1919, de Valera traveled to the United States to raise funds and support. During his absence, Michael Collins emerged as the chief coordinator of the military campaign. Early in the War conflict, he successfully established a counter intelligence network in Dublin Castle and organized a  “squad” to eliminate government spies. As the conflict progressed, Collins also set up a central military command system from which he issued orders to soldiers in the field.

As the situation spiraled out of control, *Lloyd George refused to send in the army because this would have given the conflict the status of a war.  Instead, 5000 former World War One soldiers were recruited to support the RIC. They were called the *Black and Tans from the colors of their uniform.  and by the end of 1920, they numbered over 5000. Another group, the *Auxiliaries, which was made up of 1500 Ex-British army officers, was formed in August 1920. The IRA’s guerrilla tactics, however, proved to be unbeatable. This led to the brutal Black and Tan campaign of terror and reprisals exemplified by the murder on 19 March 1920, of Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, in front of his wife and family.

As the atrocities escalated, Lloyd George attempted to find a political solution by introducing the *Government of Ireland Act in September 1920.  Under this legislation, two parliaments were to be set up, one in Dublin and one in Belfast. The act failed to bring peace as *Sinn Féin ignored it and the Ulster *Unionists only reluctantly accepted it.

On *Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, eleven British agents were assassinated in Dublin by Collins’ squad. In reprisal, the Auxiliaries that same afternoon fired into the crowd during a football game in *Croke Park, killing twelve people and wounding sixty others. That night, three prisoners, Peadar Clancy, Dick McKee and Conor Clune were also shot while (according to Dublin Castle) trying to escape. A week later, fifteen Auxiliaries were killed at an ambush at Kilmichael, County Cork, and as a result, martial law was declared in Cork, Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick on December 10.

In December 1920, de Valera returned from the United States to find a full-scale war in progress. By this stage, the IRA had perfected the tactic of the flying columns—where groups of up to thirty men operating mostly in Munster and Connaught would launch ambushes and surprise attacks. These men remained permanently on the run and were hidden and supported by the local population. In addition to these tactics, the IRA on May 25, 1921, mounted a large-scale offensive, when they attacked and burned the Customs House in Dublin.

By the summer of 1921, both sides realized that a political solution was essential. The war had cost the British government twenty million pounds since 1919 and the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had become a great embarrassment. The IRA was running out of weapons and ammunition.  Shortages of weapons and ammunition combined with growing public disillusionment with violence had also placed pressure on the IRA to negotiate for a settlement. On July 8, de Valera and General Macready, the commander in chief of British forces in Ireland, agreed to a cease-fire. The truce came into effect on Monday July 11, 1921, but preliminary negotiations between de Valera and Lloyd George in London failed to secure any agreement. In October, Irish delegates arrived in London to determine “how the association of Ireland with the British Commonwealth may be reconciled with Irish national aspirations.”


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Moody, T.W. and Martin, F.X. (eds.) The Course of Irish History. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1994.
Murphy, J. Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1989.
Moody, T.W. The Course of Irish History. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1994.